WHETHER it is face-to-face or on screen, we all need to revisit the art of respectful and successful debating. Now seems to be as good a time as any to harness the negative energy of argument; to relearn how to disagree without invoking anger.
The euphoria in the country and among Malaysians abroad was immense when Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and the new coalition party of Pakatan Harapan was declared winner of the 14th General Election after 61 years of Barisan Nasional rule.
Much was going to change in the country; everything would be different from now on. But the new government had work of Herculean proportions to master, preferably overnight, if you please.
By now, the one-year mark has passed and much has changed, but not everything, and not necessarily towards the result voters had hoped for themselves.
New challenges have emerged as well, as would within any government. Sentiments ranging from disappointment to downright disapproval of single members of government are ripe in the media and even more apparent on the Net.
While everyone is entitled to their own opinion, some statements seem a tad arbitrary and a quick read through online comment threads show signs of divisiveness, dispute and discord.
A classic essay by English-born Paul Graham, author and computer programmer with a Ph.D. from Harvard, describes what he calls the “hierarchy of disagreement”.
Graham exposes a pyramid of disagreement strategies of sorts, proposing a way toward better conversations that will inevitably lead to happier outcomes.
Graham’s pyramid starts at ground zero, the lowest level of argument: Name-calling. Whether it reads something like “what an idiot” or a more sophisticated “such a self-important dabbler”, it remains the least effective, and sadly also the most commonly encountered strategy of discrediting one’s opponent.
HD (Hierarchy of disagreement level) 1 is called Ad Hominem. True to its literal Latin translation, “to the person”, this form of argument attacks the person rather than the point one contends. An intelligent disagreement needs to challenge a statement, not who utters it.
HD2, responding to the tone in which an opinion is voiced, is only a slightly more conducive strategy.
Given that most debates happen in short-form on Twitter, Facebook or the likes these days, tone can easily be misinterpreted and judging it is quite subjective.
Graham’s pyramid moves up toward more constructive argumentation by way of “Contradiction” (DH3), which at least offers a rebuttal, but lacks evidence; “Counterargument” (DH4), providing some evidence and reasoning, and “Refutation” (DH5), which involves quoting someone back at them and pointing out minor flaws in their argument.
The most powerful form of disagreement, Paul Graham claims, is “Refuting the central point (DH6).
Figuring out the main and central point of a statement, quoting it back at one’s counterpart and exposing its shortcomings is an effective way of disproving someone’s proclamation.
Furthermore, since one’s opponent is not attacked personally, civil and productive debate is much more likely to ensue. Unfortunately, since this strategy demands more effort, it is rarely used, unlike simple name-calling.
Yet, I am not convinced the Harvard alumni’s pyramid has reached its tip. Should we take the time to follow a high-level debate, political or otherwise, we will note one recurring issue.
Both sides enter the discussion with a preconceived opinion and try their best to convince an opponent of the validity of their standpoint and the lack of such in the opposing view. They might use some or all of the above-described argumentation strategies and end the debate with each still embracing their original idea.
If the event ends in name-calling, it surely makes for good entertainment for us as viewers. If it doesn’t, we are left with some respect for both parties at least. Either way, we are left none the wiser.
If, however, instead of arguing for their opinion, both sides were to engage in open-minded discussion, asking questions, trying not to undermine or discredit their opponent’s views, but to understand them, to find merit in them instead, true progress towards a resolution could be achieved.
Arguably, this is hard to do during a heated argument or in a comment thread on social media. It is, however, worth a try, in order to harness the negative energy of a disagreement and transform it into a more positive one; as much in the online world as in the real one.
As much during the discussion of a private matter as while commenting on the issues this country’s leadership is facing.
The writer is a long-term expatriate, a restless traveller, an observer of the human condition and unapologetically insubordinate